Place for the dead in our living world

By DONALD RICHIE, Japan Times, July 15, 2007

Ritualizing a 'change of status'

Tokyo, Japan -- Buddhism has, at least in the public mind, monopolized death. In Japan, birth and marriage are usually Shinto sponsored, while Buddhism officiates at the less popular but equally inevitable funeral.

Elsewhere, Buddhism may sponsor many a happier ritual, but from Sri Lanka through Tibet and China to Japan, it also holds hegemony over death. So much so that one Japanese lay Buddhist, Chigaku Tanaka, lamented that in the eyes of the laity the Buddhist clergy were little more than undertakers.

The connection between death and Buddhist belief began early — at the funeral of the Buddha himself. His death ritual became the model for many of the Buddhist deaths to follow — something that did not often occur in other religions, Christianity, for example. The funeral was not merely to mark the end of life and a presumed entry into Nirvana; it was also to ritualize the rite of passage during which the dead underwent a significant change of status. At least some of the dead.

As in other religions, dying is not a democratic proposition. There are, in the terms used in this collection of scholarly papers, two groupings. There is "the special dead" and, on the other hand, "the ordinary dead." All beings, however deluded, however enlightened, eventually vanish but their departure is to be understood in different terms.

For the special dead, death is seen as liberation. For the ordinary dead, it is seen as a continuation of the cravings and attachments that complicated the former life now being left. In either event it is death itself that is institutionalized and its various funeral rituals define its importance

While all of this is known and acknowledged, there is no body of scholarly work that has set itself to investigating the precise relationship between death and Buddhism. This need was filled by a conference on death and dying in Buddhist culture held at Princeton University in the spring of 2002. From its proceedings, 14 papers were chosen, and it is these that make up the present collection.

They all address various aspects of their subject. The first two stress the importance of the Buddha himself as a model for all extraordinary Buddhist deaths, and his funeral — the cremation pyre and the charnel ground — as paradigms for all later constructions. Further papers deal with acquisition of meditative and ritual control over one's own death processes, followed by ruminations on religious suicide, in the Buddhist context of "giving up the body."

This leads to considerations of the state of the dead themselves. In Buddhist belief, the dead are sometimes more than merely dead. There are ongoing relationships between the living and the dead and these often provide "proof" for Buddhist ethical norms by indicating the recompense available for good and evil deeds.

In any event the dead have in Buddhist belief a definite place among the living. Ceremonies are offered at set intervals, graves are visited, a season (in Japan mid-summer, Obon) is reserved for their return. The final papers in this collection are concerned with this placing of the dead in our living world.

As a whole this collection indicates the recurrence of common themes in death-related discourses across Buddhist cultures. It indicates the tensions between impermanence and a need for continuity, the goal of an exemplary death as an index of a spiritual state, and the necessary ongoing relationship between the dead and the living.

The collection humanizes what is often viewed as a threatening situation — death itself is brought within the realm of thought.

THE BUDDHIST DEAD: Practices, Discourses, Representations
, edited by Bryan J. Cuevas and Jacqueline I. Stone. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2007, 492 pp., with illustrations, $ 65 (cloth)